Interview: How Can Gloves Make Music?

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Imagine having music at your fingertips – literally!

Grammy-winning artist Imogen Heap has worked with a group of computer scientists to create a pair of musical gloves that allow the wearer to make sounds through gestures, which she’ll use in her live performance at Reverb. We caught up with Adam Stark, one of the geniuses behind the glove’s development, to find out how a pair of music-making gloves went from sci-fi fantasy to tangible reality.

What is your role and involvement with the gloves?

I work with others on the team to develop software that allows the gloves to control music. The gloves tell us a lot about the position of our fingers, the orientation of our hand, etc. But there is another step before this that can become musically useful. We need a way to choose which combination of movements; postures and gestures will send messages to sound generators, synths and other music software. I am mainly concerned with making the gloves as musical as possible.

What is it like working with Imogen Heap?

Imogen is a pleasure to work with. She’s always coming up with new ideas and driving the project forward. Almost everything she does is hugely ambitious, and so it’s really exciting sitting down to figure out how we can make things happen. It’s all a bit of an adventure.

When she writes music with the gloves, quite often I’ve no idea how she’s doing it, even though I wrote the software she is using! She finds ways of putting layers of complexity into things that make them that extra bit special.

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Why do you think people are so interested in Imogen Heap and the gloves?

I think there are several reasons. Firstly, Imogen is clearly making music in new ways (not just with the gloves – have a look at the stories behind You Know Where To Find Me or The Listening Chair) and people are certainly taking notice of that. It’s exciting because she is writing music in ways that other people aren’t.

Then there is something of a “sci-fi” or futuristic thing to the gloves. A lot of 1980s cartoons told us that in the future we would be cyborgs with videophones, driving our flying cars. The gloves look like they come from that world.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced during the development process?

The hardest thing about the project is that it’s an ever-expanding monster. The more we develop and use the gloves, the more we come up with new ideas of things we could do with them.

What are your thoughts on the relationship between music and technological innovation? Do you think people need new ways to engage with music?

For me, the wonderful thing is that lots of the great musical innovations came not from new technologies, but the way that people have misused new technologies.
For example, in the 1950s, blues guitarists pushed their amps to the limits to get an overdriven sound (that we now all take for granted). Later, people went as far as cutting the speaker cones on their guitar amps to get a distorted sound. Then you just need to look at what has happened with hip-hop (and some classical composers), taking turntables and scratching them. I’m very interested in how someone might use the gloves in the “wrong” way…

There is a lot more to innovative music than a new piece of technology. That said, new technology can reshape the way we compose, perform and think about music, so it can have a big influence on new sounds. But it is just one piece of the puzzle.

Will the gloves ever reach the stores for mass consumption?

This is a difficult one. We certainly want everyone to be able to have a pair of gloves one day. And for them to be affordable. That would be wonderful. However, I have learned a lot in the past year that there is a huge gulf between that ambition on the one hand and the engineering, manufacturing and administrative infrastructure to make it actually happen on the other.

Have you tried on the gloves yourself?

I have to wear them when I am developing the software, otherwise I can’t be sure that what I am writing will actually work. We have a few pairs that we split between the team so that we can do all the development and testing. They’re great fun!

What advice do you have for young people trying to bring innovative ideas to the music industry?

Just don’t be afraid of failure. Success is hard to come by, and easy to enjoy. Nobody learned anything from success. The tough bit is how you deal with things when they don’t go your way. When you are scratching your head and thinking, “this isn’t working” – don’t give up, or blame yourself. Instead, think about how you can change things, to do what you want to do better.

Adam Stark will be giving a free talk where he’ll speak more about how new ideas in technology and science are making their way into entertainment.

Catch Imogen Heap with her gloves on Sunday 24 August, part of Reverb – Bloomberg Summer at the Roundhouse.